Disaster risk reduction as an essential component of climate change policy – Interview with Dr. Ian Burton

Dr. Ian Burton is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Toronto, and was, until recently, a Scientist Emeritus with Environment Canada. His research interests lie in adaptation to climate change and in the science-policy process. Having worked with governments and international agencies worldwide, Dr. Burton is one of Canada’s leading climate change scientists and one of the pioneers in the field of climate change adaptation. We sat down with Dr. Burton for an interview in his Toronto home over a strong cup of shade-grown coffee.

Interview by Lily Yumagulova, Editor, HazNet

LY: Ian, what brought you into climate change and “natural” disasters?

Ian Burton: I spent parts of my childhood and youth living in my grandparent’s houses that were periodically flooded in Derbyshire in England, UK. They were on the rivers Derwent and Trent. Later, at the University of Birmingham, I pursued my interest in rivers and water, and this led me to Gilbert White, my mentor at the University of Chicago, whose pioneering work on human adjustment to floods (not relying exclusively on flood control engineering) inspired me to do my PhD on natural hazards, especially agricultural adjustment to floods.

Coming to the University of Toronto I have followed these interests and broadened my research into other hazards including blizzards, ice storms, earthquakes and hurricanes both in Canada and the US and elsewhere including back in the UK, India and Africa. I then went on to work on technological hazards (nuclear power generation) and then more broadly into environmental risk assessment and management.

When the climate issue rose to prominence in the 1980’s I moved into the new field of climate change adaptation and became the first Director of the Climate Adaptation Branch in Environment Canada, from which we launched the first national impact and adaptation assessment. These were logical extensions from natural hazard research and disaster risk management.

LY: What are some of the key success stories in climate change?

Ian Burton: Perhaps the biggest success story with which I have been associated is the promotion and recognition of adaptation as an essential component of climate change policy alongside mitigation or emissions reduction. At the outset climate change was seen almost entirely as a pollution problem like acid rain or ozone layer depletion. A small group associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) worked hard to get adaptation accepted internationally and supported financially. This was especially important to the small island states and the least developed countries. They fought hard for adaptation in the climate negotiations with the help of reports from the IPCC. I was also part of the successful work on adaptation with NGOs like the International Institute for Environment and Development where I am a Visiting Fellow, and the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh where I served as Chair of the Advisory Board for some years.

LY: What are some of the failures?

Ian Burton: One major failure has been the inability of nation states to put aside their narrow and short-term self-interests and make choices that work for the benefit of all humankind, the world, and the planet. It took 23 years from the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 to reach the Paris Agreement of December 2015. The Paris Agreement has been acclaimed as a great step forward – a success – but it is quite weak and largely depends on the voluntary efforts of the Parties to the agreement. Parties can ignore or reverse their promises at will. Perhaps Paris 2015 even contributed to the rise of populism in 2016 and the even stronger promotion of national interests which we see today in 2017.

Of course, this major failure also subsumes the lack of sufficient success of scientists to get their message taken seriously and urgently enough by the public and politicians, in the face of opposition from some major corporate interests in the fossil fuel industry and other private sector and civil society organizations, especially in the United States.

Another failure might be described as policy fragmentation and inconsistency. Governments are supporting the development of renewable energy technology and its deployment (and now supporting adaptation as well), while at the same time they continue to subsidize the fossil fuel industry to a much greater financial extent.

More fundamentally the pattern and style of economic development, with its emphasis on economic growth at all costs, and the increase in inequalities needs to be more critically examined. The creation of higher vulnerability, especially of the lower income populations, is contributing to the growing impacts of climate change and variability and the increase in magnitude and frequency of climate related disasters.

LY: How did climate change adaptation science and industry start? Where does science fit into this?

Ian Burton: The roots of the word “adapt” go back to the Latin at least. It means to fit or to make suitable. So the process of adaptation means to modify so as to suit new conditions. There are many connotations including the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection. Some say “adapt or die”. I would prefer “adapt and thrive”. When Gilbert White wrote “Human Adjustment to Floods” he considered using the word “adaptation” and concluded that it carried too many complicating undertones and therefore chose “adjustment’. When the international negotiating committee for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) drafted the text of the Convention, (1989-92) a dichotomy was established between preventing climate change and responding to what was not prevented. The negotiators chose the words “mitigate” and “adapt”. So that is where climate change adaptation terminology came into common currency. It is in the text of the UNFCCC (signed in Rio de Janeiro in 1992).

Then, as noted before, the delegations from small island states and the least developed countries pressed for financial and technical support for adaptation under the Convention. There was little understanding of what adaptation might include and so the research process began, firstly with a small group of IPCC related researchers and then spreading out and expanding to a worldwide community of many disciplines and professions. Today the study of actual and potential adaptation to climate change and variability is a global “movement” of pure and applied scholarship and advocacy within which I include myself. It has also brought a new stream of business to consulting companies and experts.

This movement relies a lot on atmospheric science and global climate models (GCMs) to suggest what climate changes will be, how big they will be and how fast they will occur. We are always asking for more and better projections from atmospheric scientists, both about long-term climate change and about changes in climate variability and extreme events.

In a broader sense the field of adaptation (or human adjustment according to Gilbert White) predates anthropogenic climate change. Humans have always adapted to existing and changing climate both where they lived and where they migrated to. We are to some extent adapted to current climate, but not perfectly. I have used the term “adaptation deficit” to help explain that we are by no means perfectly adapted now, and indeed never have been. Evidence of this is seen in the rising toll of losses to weather and climate extremes or disasters. Adaptation to climate change and disaster risk reduction are two sides of the same coin. They need to be worked together and harmonised – without forgetting to think about and investigate maladaptation and disaster risk creation.

LY: Tell us about your work on forensic investigations of disasters. What other DRR or adaptation projects are you working on that our readers should know about?

Ian Burton: The idea of forensic investigations of disasters is to dig down into the root causes of disasters. Despite all the serious efforts made in the International Decade for Disaster Reduction (1990-1999), and the operation of the Hyogo Framework for Action (2005-2015) and now the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015-2030), global disaster losses continue to increase, and according to some of the statistics, increase at an accelerating rate.

There has been a considerable strengthening of hazard information and forecasts and warning. Emergency preparedness is improving, and the lives lost are decreasing. The core activities of disaster assistance, relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction are being strengthened. Under the Sendai Framework there is a stronger emphasis on disaster risk reduction. So why do disaster losses continue to grow?

The forensic approach is based on the hypothesis that they will continue to do so until the more fundamental and root causes are understood and addressed. The Sendai Framework lists five priorities for action and the first of these is “understanding disaster risk”. This is a recognition that disaster risk is not fully or even well understood. The theory of the forensic research initiative is that the pattern and style of economic development is creating disaster risk at a faster pace than disaster risks are being reduced. At one level this points to causes that lie in inadequate land use planning and building standards and design. Or in some cases the absence of standards. Perhaps also to the lack of adequate enforcement, and the use of corruption to avoid safety regulations.

A paper has been prepared to help in the development of these investigations: “Forensic Investigations of Disasters (FORIN); A conceptual framework and guide to research”. Published in Beijing it may be accessed here.

There is a parallel here between the disaster and climate issues. Just as we are generating more climate risks while attempting to reduce emissions, so we are creating more disaster risk while focussing our efforts on disaster risk reduction. We need to add to the Sendai Framework for DRR the need to understand better the processes of Disaster Risk Creation. That would be forensic investigations!

I am working to encourage and promote the idea of forensic investigations. After every major disaster I would like to see an independent enquiry made not just into the proximate causes, but into the root causes. It might be something like the work of the Transportation Safety Board. If a succession of such enquiries were to be conducted then we would be able to do some meta-analysis bringing together the results to gain understanding of common underlying causes. This is quite a challenge because there are always those who might prefer not to know.

I am now working as an Advisor to Canada’s Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction (in Public Safety Canada), and also as an Advisor to the Auditor General for Canada for an on-going audit of adaptation to climate change. I am also working with IDRC (International Development Research Centre, Canada) and DFID (Department for International Development, UK) as an advisor on climate adaptation research projects in Africa and Asia.

LY: What do you see as some of the most urgent priorities for adaptation in Canada?

Ian Burton: We have to bring adaptation to the same level of public awareness and policy action as mitigation. In fact, we have to do more. Adaptation to climate change and variability must be on the agenda for action of every level of government, every private sector corporation, and every sector of the economy. And this must be informed, pushed and advocated by the science community, NGOs and civil society.

I am happy to say that this is in fact happening if not rapidly enough. We are still at the beginning, or still in the early days. But many corporations are now aware that they should be telling their shareholders in what ways and how much they are at risk from climate change and what they are doing to manage the risks. Some of them are appointing senior Risk Officers to advise CEOs. Something similar to this corporate initiative is occurring in the public sector. Many municipalities are adding climate change risk and adaptation to their agenda. Provinces, territories and even the federal government are doing likewise. We are on the right track, but more must be done and more quickly. I say “even” the federal government because while the present Government of Canada is taking a stronger lead than the previous governments, it is moving more cautiously on adaptation. This is partly explained by the widespread and inaccurate view that adaptation is mainly a local, municipal, and provincial matter and that is where the action must be taken and the costs borne.

There are many urgent priorities. I will name only two. First is infrastructure and planning. We are starting to invest a lot more in infrastructure and about time too! But unless this infrastructure is designed and located to be adapted to climate change we will only increase vulnerability and exposure. Development and growth without adaptation is maladaptive.

The second priority I would like to mention is governance. It is a classic Canadian problem! Whose jurisdiction? Who pays? We need urgently to come to a common understanding of how the responsibilities for adaptation are to be allocated and divided both within governments (different departments and agencies) and between different levels of government. Related to this is the problem of coordination. Adaptation is everybody’s business, so how are all the efforts to be organised and harmonised?

LY: What can Canada do internationally?

Ian Burton: There are many dimensions to this question. Here are two of them. First Canada can take a lead in promoting adaptation in the UNFCCC and supporting the IPCC and in providing policy and technical and financial support to the countries and communities most in need and least able to adapt on their own. I think there is a big gap between Canada’s capacity to lead and to help and what we are now actually doing. I hope that our governments will rectify this soon.

Second we need to recognise that there are international aspects to our own adaptation. These begin at the border with transboundary issues. Agricultural production and trade, water resources management, plant and animal species migration and disease vectors are all closely connected at and close to the border. But not only that, long distance environmental connections as well as markets, international trade and security will also be affected. It is time to think about adaptation not only as something we do locally but also on a larger and wider scale.

LY: For our readers who are just starting to explore this field and for those who have been in it for years, what are some of your favourite authors / books in the field of climate change adaptation?

Ian Burton: As I said earlier climate change adaptation has achieved the status of a movement. There are now many authors and a rapidly expanding literature, both books and peer reviewed journal papers, and governmental reports. A good place to start is with the assessments made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The most recent is the Fifth Assessment Report “Climate Change 2014”. See the report of Working Group II “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” especially Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects; Chapter 14 Adaptation Needs and Options; Chapter 15 Adaptation Planning and Implementation; Chapter 16 Adaptation Opportunities, Constraints, and Limits; and Chapter 17 Economics of Adaptation. Published by Cambridge University Press New York, 2014. Members of CRHNet might also be interested in the IPCC Special Report “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation”, Cambridge University Press 2012.

I have also added a short list of books that I have found helpful at the end of this interview.

LY: Please tell us about the Burtoni Award.

Ian Burton: This “award” (all you get is a certificate!) was initiated by a few IPCC colleagues during the preparation of the Third Assessment Report. 2001. We were concerned to promote adaptation and the group had the idea that making an award for research in adaptation would be a way of promoting the field and flagging its importance. I was very pleased and flattered that my colleagues decided to use my name the award. Perhaps because I was the most senior member of the group. “Burtoni” comes from my very first e mail address which was Burtoni@….. There have been seven awardees so far:
These are, 2003 Ian Burton. 2004 Roger Jones (Australia). 2006 Saleemul Huq (Bangladesh), 2009 Coleen Vogel (South Africa). 2015 Karen o’Brien (Norway). 2016 Mark Pelling (UK). And 2016 Richard Klein (Netherlands and Sweden).
The next awardee is expected to be announced in 2018.

LY: What is your advice to young people just entering the field?

Ian Burton: Have a mission. Follow it with enthusiasm. Enjoy the fact that you are helping to lead the charge, not only for adaptation, but also for the whole climate change disasters and vulnerability issues. Focus on what you can do best, and address adaptation in the context of the global environment and also aim to help support the objectives of sustainable development, and global equity. The need for climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction arises from human actions and choices, and dealing effectively with the problem requires changes in those actions and choices that are based on evidence and ethics. The path is not easy and there will be difficult and depressing times. Do not give up hope and retain your enthusiasm in working in consort with colleagues, those who are close by, and others who are far away.

LY: What keeps you hopeful?

Ian Burton: Where there is life there is hope. And the world is full of life. It is encouraging to see the energy and determination of so many, especially the younger generations. There are prospects for a better world out there, with better adaptation and less disasters. Such achievements will not come easily or soon, but they are within reach.

Suggested books:

Neil Leary, James Adejuwon, Vincente Barros, Ian Burton, Jyoti Kulkarni, and Rodel Lasco (editors). Climate Change and Adaptation. Earthscan, London, 2008.
E. Lisa F. Schipper and Ian Burton, The Earthscan Reader on Adaptation to Climate Change. Earthscan. London. 2009.
W. Neil Adger, Irene Lorenzoni, and Karen O’Brien (editors). Adapting to Climate Change: Thresholds, Values, Governance. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. 2009.
F.J. Warren, and D.S. Lemmen, (editors). Canada in a Changing Climate: Sector Perspectives on impacts and Adaptation. Government of Canada, Ottawa. 2014.
Tor Hakon Inderberg, Siri Eriksen, Karen O’Brien, and Lynda Sygna (editors) Climate Change Adaptation and Development: Transforming Paradigms and Practices. Routledge, London and New York 2015.
Jean P. Palutikof, Sarah L. Boulter, Jon Barnett, and David Rissik, (editors). Applied Studies in Climate Adaptation. John Wiley, Chichester, 2015

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